By Hartford Gongaware and Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
If it were baseball we would be talking about the Deans, maybe. Jay was known as Dizzy; his younger brother Paul, much to his chagrin, became known as Daffy. They starred together for the infamous Gas House Gang of St. Louis Cardinals, winning four games—two games apiece—of the 1934 World Series. These years later, it can be said that we know them because of their successes, but we remember them especially because they were also brothers.
Major League Baseball also gives us Hank and Tommie Aaron, the DiMaggio’s, Greg and Mike Maddux and many more. In American letters, meanwhile, we have the Barthelmes, lately the Foers, and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff.
Of this latter pair, Geoffrey is the older brother; Tobias is seven years his junior. They are literary lions and look the part—Toby beneath a bristling white mustache, Geoffrey with a full, furry beard. Geoffrey is the tenor; Toby’s voice is a rumbling bass. On Geoffrey’s desk sits a photograph of the pair of them upon Blackwing, his sailboat, in the company of Richard Ford and the late Raymond Carver. (One wonders – who took the photo?[i]) They have kept good company, each of them, throughout long, successful careers as writers and teachers of writers, but it is clear that the company they most enjoy is one another’s.
It is much easier to look back and say that Greg Maddux was the better pitcher, Hank Aaron the more damaging slugger, that Joe was the iconic of the DiMaggio three. But who would bother with comparisons when it comes to two American greats, writers who happen to be brothers?
The work in either case speaks meaningfully and often beautifully for itself. Each has his adherents. And literature is not baseball. Nevertheless, as an interested reader, it is hard not to engage with their work—both have written notable memoirs—without giving special attention to those moments when the one mentions the other. What is it about siblings?
They will talk to you about baseball. Both are fans of the Boston Red Sox, and if you talk to either about the Sox, you are likely (eventually) to hear the same story: of Geoffrey’s pursuit of Ted Williams’ autograph during one spring training when the brothers were still living in the same home, with their mother and, sometimes, their father in Sarasota.
It was 1950. Ted Williams was legendarily gruff and did not sign—ever. As Geoffrey recalls in his stunning memoir The Duke of Deception, “Day after day, he shrugged me off, ran beside me without looking at me, once ran over me when I tried to block him.”
Tobias is pleased to join in the telling, when GUTFIRE! gets the pair together over dinner, Thursday night before they are to speak at Saturday’s Savannah Book Festival. “He just wanted you to shut up!” Tobias crows.
“That’s right,” Geoffrey admits, “‘If I sign it will you shut up?’”
Ted Williams signed the ball Ted Williams, but the pen skipped (it was a ballpoint), so most of the characters were broken. Let Geoffrey tell it: “At home I studied the ball. It didn’t satisfy me. I closed the breaks in the letters of his signature, making it bold and perfect. Then I practiced his script till I had it better than he had it. And then I wrote on my ball what he would have written had he had more time, For Jeff, A Great Kid, Ted Williams, The Splendid Splinter, Batter Up!”
A version of this story wins roaring laughter from those assembled at dinner, Tobias too, but the written record offers a coda:
Geoffrey writes, “I took my ball to school. Everyone agreed it was a fake. Everyone agreed the Ted Williams part was a forgery, too. A few days later Toby took this ball into the backyard and lost it. He admitted this to me, but not to my parents. He told them he had seen me foul it into a mangrove swamp, that I blamed him for everything. I hit him in the stomach, where I was never to hit him. My mother cuffed me, and I ran away from home for an hour or two.”
Three months later, the boys’ father took a job with Boeing in Seattle. Not long after that, Geoffrey followed. Except for three brief meetings, he didn’t see his mother again until he was twenty-six. The brothers spent the next eleven years apart – years recounted in The Duke of Deception, and in Tobias’ canonical 50’s memoir, This Boy’s Life.[ii]
On Saturday, the brothers will give their talks, in succession, from the pulpit at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia. Beneath the gilt painted words HOLINESS BECOMETH THINE HOUSE, O LORD, FOREVER, Geoffrey is first to speak (as per nature) upon the topic of a life in letters. He begins, “So, Toby will remember—my brother, the person I am closet to in the world and whom I love…”
“My association with the word began in a boarding house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. It was a turkey farm, and we were there not long before Thanksgiving, and I was young, and to go outside was to be attacked by the turkeys—it’s why I never approve of free range anything. As far as I’m concerned, they should keep turkeys on a leash. In those days, it was the turkeys or Ronnie, the neighborhood bully, and so I spent a lot of time inside…”
It is worthy of note: Toby does remember. After banishing his wife and brother from the premises (“He’ll just want to correct me,” he says), Tobias mounts the stairs to the pulpit, when it is his turn to speak. He begins his talk: “I’d like to amplify a few things my brother just said, specifically about this boarding house, which was indeed a turkey farm…
“Our father had been absent at the time, as he often was, and the women who ran the boarding house decided to make a fortune in turkeys, but they didn’t know anything about how to raise them. When it came time for slaughter, they did it wrong. This was in winter, and they did it in the barn—through the double doors, the blood upon the ice—and the blood had gathered in the turkeys, under the skin, and they were blood red, not the lovely pinkish-grey hue we are used to with our Butterballs. Someone told them that to remedy the situation, they might put the turkeys in warm water, and so they took them into the house and put them in the bathtub, and so, one of my earliest memories is of those red corpses, floating there in that blood red water of a bathtub…
“As I say, of such things are writers made.”
Indoors, young Geoffrey turned to books, including the work of Albert Terhune, who wrote all of his novels from the point of view of collie dogs. One (a particular favorite of both the brothers) was a book named Lad, a Dog. Discovering the world of books, Geoffrey says, was like discovering the “keys to the castle.” He smiles nostalgically. “There was that moment, when after asking my mother, ‘What’s this mean?’ ‘What’s that mean?’ ‘What’s this mean?’ when I didn’t have to ask anymore. From then on, I knew that I would never be alone again, and I could go where I wanted to go.”
In the company of his ne’er-do-well, limerick-loving father, Geoffrey’s later literary loves included “men from Madras, and Stambul, Kilkenny and Nantucket, and ladies from Dallas… and Hunt,” the rhyming counterparts to which he leaves up to the audience—assembled as they are in a church[iii]—to figure for themselves. But then he looks up with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, takes in his surroundings, and recites a limerick in full; one gets the sense that he can’t resist:
A mathematician named Hall,
Had a hexahedronical ball,
And the cube of its weight,
Times his pecker’s, plus eight
Is his phone number – give him a call.
He sighs. Moves on. “I was a would-be snob….”
If Geoffrey was a would-be snob, Tobias was a would-be Jack London. From Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, it was but one small step to Call of the Wild and White Fang, stories which Tobias began to emulate endlessly, agreeing to his mother’s request that he be confirmed only if he could change his name to “Jack.” (Per This Boy’s Life: “Geoffrey didn’t really care what I called myself.”) Eventually, “Jack Wolff” began writing extra-credit stories for all of his classmates.
On Saturday at the book festival, in the church, Tobias notes that he has heard recently from a classmate who had passed in as his own a Jack Wolff story about a family of Italian trapeze artists. The family takes out a life insurance policy for the patriarch, who’s been holding out on them. In the story, said patriarch’s final act each night is to dive from a great height into a pool, which, one night, the family drains, painting the bottom blue to resemble water. The patriarch dives. The money is collected. The story earns a “C.”
“‘That doesn’t sound like a ‘C’ story to me,’” Tobias said to his friend, some forty years later, when reminded of it.
“That’s what I said to the teacher. And she said she agreed. It was an ‘A’ story, but I’d got a ‘C’ because it wasn’t my story. She said, ‘Jack Wolff wrote that story.’”
“And I confess,” Tobias says, from the pulpit. “Even then, all these years later, I felt this swell of pride for my teenage self. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘She knew my work!’”
During their time apart, each brother existed for the other as an idea and in letters. “For me,” Geoffrey says, “It was almost as if he’d been stolen by Gypsies.” And of Geoffrey’s letters to his ‘stolen’ brother, Tobias has said, as quoted in The Duke of Deception, “I was proud not to be able to understand a word you wrote us.”
Indeed, in his essay “Apprentice” (collected in A Day at the Beach), Geoffrey recalls one particular letter which begins: “We live in an age when contraception and the Bomb and rejected opportunities usurp each other [sic] as negative functions… the cliché governs by executive functions… in the ruined warrens are pockets of beautiful life…” This was written in response to a letter from Tobias, who had “obscurely” offended Geoffrey with an expression of “enthusiasm for his country and for some of its better contemporary and popular prose writers.” The balance of the letter consists of a suggestion that before Tobias read another word of William Styron or Norman Mailer, he turn at once to “Donne, Eliot on Donne, Sophocles, Aristotle, John Jones on Aristotle, Racine, Hegel (on tragedy)” and etc.
Tobias kept this letter, a photocopy of which he sent back to his brother many years later, with a Post-It self-stick memo affixed to the first page: “I still don’t know half the stuff in here, and I’m a Full Professor, Mr. Smarty Pants!! (I thought you might want this back).”[iv]
The tone of their correspondence eventually became more familiar, as Tobias recalls in This Boy’s Life. “Geoffrey wanted to see me,” he writes. “That was plain. I had been wanting to see him for years, but before now, even when I hatched plans to join up with him, I never knew whether he felt the same way. In most respects we were strangers. But it mattered to me that he was my brother, and it seemed to matter to him. In his letters, elegance of tone had given way to simple friendliness. I carried the letters around with me and read them with elation.”
We have 13 people at the dinner table (one is not drinking, which the assembled agree makes our number not unlucky). Present are the brothers Wolff, their gracious, patient wives, GUTFIRE! and its familiars, including a painter, and various august members of the citizenry. Following a cheese plate in the new localvore tradition, dinner is served buffet-style and includes beef tenderloin and horseradish sauce, varying configurations of potato, haricot verts and salads. Wine is courteously provided by “The Baron” de Pichon-Longueveille, in his 1989 guise.
The brothers sit one-woman apart. GUTFIRE! crowds that same end of the table, and there is much merriment.
It should be said that GUTFIRE! had asked Geoffrey ahead of time about the possibility of an interview. “I am fine with anything,” Geoffrey had replied. “But we will see. Toby likes to be in control.” At dinner, when posed with the request, Tobias proves cagey indeed. GUTFIRE! suggests (quite desperately) “Come on, now! You’ve got to compete with the Barthelmes.” The brothers erupt in stunned laughter, and Geoffrey bellows, “I should hope not!”
Tobias makes a grand gesture: “Well, you know… everything changes when that recorder hits the table!” His hand hits the table—hard, flat and final.
GUTFIRE! says, “I have a good memory.”
“AHA!” Tobias says, “Well, okay then. Use it.”
One among GUTFIRE!’s familiars takes the opportunity to ask: “Do you compete? Are you critical of each other?”
Tobias is quick to pounce, “Well, let me tell you, when I first read Duke of Deception, I said to Geoffrey, ‘You’ve got mom all wrong.’”
This draws a belly laugh from Geoffrey, listening intently, “He did!”
Priscilla Wolff says, “Oh, that was an awful night. I remember: we were all in Vermont.”
Toby doesn’t hesitate in adding, “Of course, it was only after I’d written something like that myself that I really understood how hard it was to do, how difficult something so subjective like that can be to write about.”
GUTFIRE! turns to Geoffrey, “Did you ever consider Tobias as a potential reader?”
“No, and boy did he notice!”
The brothers laugh, and then Tobias says, quite seriously, “Yes, but I think I can be forgiven that. After all, as I say, ‘In the memory of our brother, he was the leading actor in that moment.’”
GUTFIRE!: I once saw Alice Sebold read from her memoir Lucky, [She is also the author of The Lovely Bones and was a student of both brothers]. After the reading, I went up and asked her about what she had done in order to re-create events—whole conversations, and long ones—from memory. How had she done it? And she said she had simply told her family that she would do her best to capture the sense of things as she experienced them.”
“I think that’s right,” Geoffrey says, “That’s all you can do.”
“We do our best to tell the truth,” Tobias adds, “And despite this, when we tell stories, a great deal of editing and selection goes into that, more than we know about.”
Tobias will speak with fervor on the subject in two days, condemning the falsifiers, especially those like Herman Rosenblat, who invented his Holocaust memoir Angel at the Fence, the “true” story of a love that survived Buchenwald (he claims, many years later, to have found by accident and married the girl who daily tossed him apples over the fence). Tobias will also take time and great care in savaging Misha Defonseca (a pseudonym), whose Misha: Memoire of the Holocaust Years was not only faked, but demonstrably absurd. A survivor, she claimed to have wandered as a young girl throughout Europe afoot, at one point keeping company with a pack of wolves, who took care of her as one of their own.[v] Tobias mentions James Frey only to say that he is not worth mentioning, but having singled out the phony Holocaust memoirs he notes, “I think there can be a willfulness in the distortion of the past, that we are not entitled to… once you put Memoir on the cover, you are bound by honesty to do your best to recreate events accurately. I bring up the Holocaust, because there is a large industry in denying those events, and when we betray the past, we add fuel to that. It damages our communal memories.”
There is always a self-seeking impulse, the illusion of central importance, both brothers agree on this. In the end, as Tobias so succinctly puts it, the thing to do is “tell the truth as much as possible.”
The brothers have done so, and with rigor, and a study of their work reveals how hard it can be to try and tell the truth. Indeed, how absurd the notion that it can be done!
Geoffrey, of course, spent his formative years with a father whose “deep voice and imperial bearing had served as collateral for the most fabulous promises and claims.” “The Duke” was always driving foolish and extravagant automobiles. “Unpaid for, never to be paid for,” so Tobias recalls; “paid for with rubber checks,” as Geoffrey has it. Their mother, speaking of the Duke, put it this way: “He was a blue-sky artist.”
The brothers were reunited, finally, one summer in La Jolla, in the company (or, more frequently, absence) of their father. The Duke had promised to send Toby bus fare from Washington state to La Jolla, and “after some foot-dragging” he finally did; he stiffed Geoffrey—newly a Princeton graduate—who borrowed bus fare from a friend By the time Geoffrey arrived, however, their father had suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be committed to a sanatorium south of San Diego. In The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey recalls taking over his father’s position at Convair Astronautics: “While I was at the missile works I obliged Toby to read a book a day and write a thousand words. I must say he was sporting about this intrusion into his holiday hours. But then, as I often reminded him, I was paying the rent and buying the food.”
Today, Geoffrey puts it this way, “I was his mother and father; he had no food and no place to live without me. And it wasn’t like what I was asking him to do was all that hard—it was school—kickass school, but that’s all it was.” Priscilla says, “Geoffrey was his first teacher.”[vi]
Here is Tobias’ version, from This Boy’s Life: “Geoffrey supported us all by working at Convair Astronautics. He had no time to write his novel, or even to prepare the classes that he would be teaching in Istanbul that fall. While he worked I ran wild. He tried to keep me busy and get me ready for school by having me write essays on assigned reading. ‘Disease as Metaphor in The Plague.’ ‘Modes of Blindness in Oedipus Rex.’ ‘Conscience and Law in Huckleberry Finn.’ But he had better luck teaching me to love Django Reinhardt and Joe Venuti, and to sing, while he took tenor, the bass line in the glee-club songs he’d learned at Choate. We still sing them.”
The summer ended poorly: at some point, Papa Wolff requested of the boys a search for a lighter he said had been given him by RAF friends in England. Geoffrey tells it this way:
“Toby helped me look for it, in the new apartment and the old, in the rental car we had returned, through every box and pocket and drawer. We couldn’t find it. I decided it had never been, and even if it had existed was just a fake inscribed with some sentiment of my father’s own devising and names off a roll of lost friends and scant acquaintances. Finally, the day my father was released, five weeks after Toby had arrived, we reached the bottom of this mystery. Toby confessed under my fathers’ inquisition that he had lost it; he had taken the lighter while my father was in Nevada and left it on the beach. He had been afraid to tell us, of course. The old man broke down in a rage, and so did I, remembering the hours Toby had let me spend with him while he pretended to look for the damned thing, while he gave helpful suggestions of where to look for it. I saw then, in a stroke, how much Toby must hate us both, and why. We put him on a bus north the next morning and my father and I spent two days and nights together looking at each other, rarely speaking.”
How then and when did things get better? Geoffrey offers one possible answer, “When we had children, our parents behaved so recklessly that we couldn’t fathom it. When you are a child, you can fathom anything—that’s the way things are. Anyway, I think that was when we put it all behind us—finally and for good. There aren’t any land mines in our relationship anymore.” But Priscilla, Geoffrey’s wife, puts it most simply, and, perhaps, best: “They didn’t grow up together, and so they had to grow to love each other.”
Talking about prose—about writers and books and “the work”—the Wolff brothers visibly, physically focus, both of them. As one of our familiars says, “It’s amazing how alike they are, when you think of all the time they spent apart.” When you speak, they lean forward, and their eyes harden upon your words. Once in a while, if you pass as clever, you can get them to turn red, exploding into laughter, breathless with it.
When the time arrives for seconds, Geoffrey gratefully accepts into his hands the offered platter of tenderloin meat, “I will, yes!”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of excess,” Tobias chides him.
Geoffrey laughs into his plate, “Just a little bit too much is just enough for me.”[vii]
GUTFIRE! takes this opportunity to reflect, “When I think about these memoirs—Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life—I am most struck by the portrait we get of America in the 50s and 60s. I think of how amazing it is—there is so much light and sunshine and space in the world—and it truly was the land of opportunity. To think of what you could get away with!”
Tobias is game: “Oh, sure, I think it is fair to say that reinvention is part of the American identity. You were expected, in fact, to reinvent yourself. Constantly. There was something wrong with you if you didn’t.”
GUTFIRE!: “Today, you could never get away with all you got away with. With all that your father—the Duke—got away with. Everyone would know who you were. You couldn’t hide; you’d never get away with it a second time.”
“Well, there’s Madoff,” Geoffrey cautions. “There are plenty of us who can hide in plain sight.”
GUTFIRE!: “Right, but you’ve got to be good.”
“You have to be better than you used to, for sure,” Tobias says.
GUTFIRE!: “I think things are different today. Or maybe it’s just my generation: I have friends who’ve wanted to live the perfect house, on the perfect street, in a gated community where they can play golf and drive to work in the same golf cart.[viii] Of course—they wind up reinventing themselves as swingers, or whatever, and it doesn’t seem to make them as happy as it should.”
“I went to a swingers party once,” Tobias says, “This was in Vermont, when Geoffrey and I were teaching at Goddard College there, and I heard about a party and went on up the road. They were thrilled to see me, until they realized that I hadn’t brought a gal.”
“Some things are better left in the seventies,” Geoffrey says.
“Right, like that belt you used to wear. And bell bottoms.”
[Geoffrey explodes in laughter] “I used to wear this fur belt,” he says, gathering himself.
“Not fur, Geoffrey: hair.”[ix]
“That’s right,” he says, “Hypoallegenic! It was a pony-skin belt, and it had a belt buckle big as a salad plate, and I used to wear it with black, leather bell bottoms, if you can believe it….”
After some crosstalk, Geoffrey gleefully joins the subject again, “I remember a dinner we had once with Tony Yerkovitch—a good friend of Toby’s, who became a good friend of mine. He owns the Buffalo Club on Olympic in Los Angeles. We were at Michael’s in Santa Monica. (It was the most expensive dinner I ever ate. Someone else was paying for it anyway, thank goodness.) And my son Nick was there and we were having this same conversation, and he asked, ‘What are bell bottoms?’ And Tony said, ‘When you were a baby, lying on your back, and the sky—the roof—disappeared into a cloud of gabardine. That was your father’s trousers.”
Throughout dinner and dessert, they recall their exploits together with no shortage of laughter, each brother interrupting the other to amplify, expand, and in some cases, correct. Correction manifests itself often as one-upmanship, sometimes as one sticking up for the other, and always as deep love between brothers. One story, upon the topic of “swingers,” ends, “We were looking for Swedes…” “…But they weren’t looking for us,” and does it matter which brother delivered which line?
Together, they tell the story of a road trip in 1973 or 1974 (they argue, briefly, about which exactly it was). They rented a car in San Francisco, a Pinto, and they were headed to Los Angeles. (“You can certainly date it by whatever year it was Tom Waits had the hit, ‘Better Off Without a Wife,’ because that was certainly part of the trip.”) They had Coors and Olympia. (“I mean a shitload of it, in three or four Styrofoam coolers.”) Driving down the coast highway (“that beautiful drive”) they were in Santa Barbara or Montecito, and after a day of drinking and smoking pot, Geoffrey pulled off to the side of the road to piss on the car. (“It was such a shitty car I had to piss on it.”) So Geoffrey was standing in the middle of the road, drunk, pissing on the car, when the cops rolled up. (Geoffrey has been doing most of the telling up until this point; Toby takes over the story from here.) “Officer!” Geoffrey said, and he was talking to him over his shoulder, just calm as can be, “Officer! Thank God you’re here, we are terribly lost!”
At some point, late in the evening, Geoffrey reaches for a bottle of wine, looks at it, sets it back in its place. He grins. “Oh, this wine. This is great wine. I remember when I got my first book deal, I was really feeling like a swell and I thought, I am going to do something grown up, and went bought a case of wine.” He gestures at the bottle. “And that’s it. That was the wine, I am sure of it”
GUTFIRE!: “The Baron?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it was! Pichon-Longueveille. I don’t know what it cost per bottle, but I bought a case of it.”
“And there goes your advance,” Tobias snickers.
Geoffrey shoots him a look. “Well, no.”
There is an uncomfortable pause, and then someone asks, “Did you both do therapy?” which question draws belly-laughs from both of them. “Oh God, no!” they cry. “No. Jesus, no!” and they are back on the same page.
The next day, leaving brunch, the group of us is walking to our painter-friend’s studio, to see the excellent landscapes he’s been working on. As we stroll the streets of Savannah, unseasonably warm for February, Priscilla Wolff is kind to ask, “So when are you two going to sit for this interview?”
“I don’t know,” Geoffrey says.
Tobias (in a jovial mood) says, “I thought we did that last night?”
GUTFIRE! is somewhat at a loss for words. In the latter part of the evening prior, we had asked Geoffrey to intercede, with the notion of getting the pair on tape. “No,” he had said, flatly, “I won’t do that. And Toby really will talk differently with a recorder on the table.”
And so, even despite more of the weekend to come, GUTFIRE! says the words as we realize the fact of it, “I guess we’re relying on memory then.”
“Ah….” Tobias says, “Like I said, use it!”
The paintings are lovely in a way that seems inexpressible, even despite the presence of so many writers in one room. The landscapes are more than photo-realistic—they are hyper-realistic—the attention to detail is obsessive. The painter shows off the brushes he is using, the tips hold each of them only a few long, fine bristles. He approaches these canvases (and they are quite large) sector by sector, each small portion itself abstracted from the greater whole. “Or else I would lose myself,” he explains. Although the subject matter and style is quite different, in terms of this technique the painter that comes to mind is Chuck Close, and we spend a long time looking at the paintings, from both near and afar. It is a way, also, to prolong the saying of goodbyes.
Each of them—Geoffrey first, and then Tobias—has a moment’s conversation with the painter, and though others may be listening in, it feels completely confessional. As when reading their work, one admires their honesty, their unabashed sincerity, their willingness to reward interest and patience with authenticity.
Looking at a seascape, close to it, inspecting, Geoffrey says (he is asking the painter, but also the painting, all of us, the world): “When? When is it ever done? Never. It’s never done… I mean getting those waves and reflections? It’s never stable. The sea is constantly shifting beneath you.” Tobias, a moment later, buttonholes the painter. He says, “What is it we say about work? Who said it? It’s true, isn’t it, that work is never finished, only abandoned?”
[i] GUTFIRE! has the answer: a waitress at The Oar on Block Island in Rhode Island took the photo. As Geoffrey tells it, “In a terrible act of misjudgment, the three of us—Richard, Toby and I—left Ray alone aboard. We couldn’t have been gone for an hour, and when we returned with a waitress we’d wooed out of the restaurant, the boat was absolutely billowing smoke—a new boat! Blackwing had a kerosene stove, and when you used the stove, you used to have to prime the burners with alcohol. Well, Ray hadn’t done that, and I am quite sure I’d left him instructions not under any circumstances to use the stove. But he had: he pumped up the kerosene and lit it. We returned, and I was furious, and Ray is swearing, “I haven’t done a thing! I didn’t do a damn thing! I’ve just been sitting here shooting smack into my eyeballs!”* It was at this point that the girl wanted to be taken back to shore, but not before we had her snap a photo, and Richard, who had vouched for Ray’s trustworthiness when we went ashore, spent the evening with me in the cabin, cleaning the soot—soot was everywhere—with acetone, the two of us periodically passing out from the fumes.”
* Raymond Carver did not shoot smack into his eyeballs. “Ray was a good boy,” Geoffrey says, “I mean, he was probably a bad boy too, but he was mostly a good boy. The thing he was into was coffee, and that was one of the reasons we didn’t want to leave him there alone—we didn’t know if he could make it a whole hour without a cup of coffee.”
[ii] This Boys Life came out a good ten years after Duke of Deception, during which time Geoffrey was by the far the more prolific (and more famous) of the brothers. “There was a time when I had a lot of books coming out,” Geoffrey says, “and Toby got very tired of hearing about it. And he found that people would ask him questions like, ‘So, your brother’s latest book, what did you think of that?’ trying to put him in a position of coming out against me, and he finally started saying, ‘I’m not here to talk about my brother,’ and so of course they read that as something. . . ”
[iii] At some point, GUTFIRE! asks Geoffrey, “What did you ever do with religion?”
“Oh, nothing. Never.” He smiles with just absolute pleasure in telling the story: “I faked it. When I was at Choate, I took Seymour St. John’s confirmation class, so that he would like me better, and … [he laughs] my father… came to my confirmation—and smoking was not allowed at Choate. If you got caught smoking, you were kicked out, first offense. And my father came to my confirmation class and he handed me, in front of St. John, a silver cigarette case with, engraved on it in silver, ‘For Christ’s Sake’ Gee, thanks Dad. Our father.”
Tobias is a practicing Catholic and when pressed about this aspect of their relationship, Geoffrey says of his brother, “He would tell me, ‘If there isn’t a world to come, then what are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘I’m here for the ride! God’s plenty on this Earth.’”
[iv] Toby also still has this letter in his file – and Geoffrey “by the shorts” – having sent only a photocopy.
[v] Tobias says, “If there is one thing to know about wolves, it’s that they are almost always hungry. And so, here comes this toddler—cherubic—wandering in the woods, and we are to believe that the wolf sees her and thinks, what? ‘Oh how cute, let’s share our food with her and raise her as our own?’ Shame on her agent, her editor, her publisher and on anyone who bought, read and admired the book.”
[vi] When, years later, Tobias’ Vietnam-era memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, is dedicated to “My brother, who gave me books.”
[vii] Geoffrey shares the source of this line: this was at a dinner, back in the 70s, at Maxim’s in Paris. A group of friends dining out, with Gilbert Butler sporting drinks extravagantly. (“He paid for everything,” Geoffrey notes.) Eventually, Butler decides upon cigars all around—Cubans!—providing not one, but two per man so that each will have one to take home. Geoffrey, slightly overwhelmed, offers to help with the check, “Come on, don’t you think this is awfully much?” to which Butler responds, “A little bit too much is just enough for me.”
[viii] GUTFIRE! realizes only now that what we were describing sounds not too much unlike a Hollywood portrait of the fifties.
[ix] Geoffrey says, “The biggest fight we ever had—and by fight I mean words, not fists—was over whether all cows have horns or not. I will say that Toby was on the right side of the argument, but I don’t know what the right side of the argument is. And, in fact, I don’t want to know, because it will upset my worldview and sense of well being.”